Top Slot WRs vs. Coverage Shells

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Top Slot WRs vs. Coverage Shells

An ongoing battle takes place on a yearly basis between defenses attempting to develop techniques to mask coverage shells while offenses search for “tells” to force defenses to identify those shells and scheming techniques of attack. Considering the masterminds behind the scenes leading both charges, gains established in exploiting either side of the formula are short-lived. This tug-of-war leaves fantasy aficionados with no other choice but to reevaluate the results of coverage research on an annual basis.

I’ll begin a breakdown of the top fantasy receivers and the coverages they can reasonably be expected to exploit with the top-10 slot wide receivers in Fantasy Points staff rankings. Keep in mind that the designation of a “slot” receiver is not a clear-cut science. Many of those on my list will end each season lining up all over the field. For the purposes of this article, I have counted inclusion based upon lining up in the slot on close to 50& of offensive snaps.

Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The transition from the free-slinging inadequacy of Jameis Winston to the controlled excellence of Tom Brady cannot be underestimated. It’s obviously too early to tell how this change will affect Chris Godwin’s fantasy outlook. Godwin absolutely shreds linebackers and safeties with anything close to resembling a weakness in zone coverage. He does his best work on in routes and crossers to the middle of the field. His production last season against Carolina, LA Rams, and Atlanta can be directly attributed to his ability to exploit Cover 3 defenses to the middle of the field. In addition, Godwin is one the most effective receivers in the league at abusing Cover 2 shells when utilizing out routes.

Compiling this information into a profile, of sorts, will aid in targeting which matchups we should exploit for DFS purposes. We want to see Godwin facing teams deploying significant snaps in C3 shells with coverage-deficient linebackers or C2 shells with quality issues at safety. Take note that the following exploitative matchups have been compiled from 2019 film study. Current scheme and personnel changes have not been considered since we really have no way of drawing definitive conclusions at this point.

Defenses to exploit this season: Broncos (W3), Chiefs (W12), Falcons (W15 & 17), Giants (W8), Panthers (W2 & 10), and Rams (W11)

Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

An individual gifted with 4.2 speed delivers an innate ability to create his own offense. After rewatching Hill’s ’19 tape, that expectation was verified. Tyreek Hill may possess one of the most well-rounded route repertoires in the game. I was unable to find a single route he seemed to utilize with any regularity over any other. The “Cheetah” also faced a who’s who of the league’s top safeties in ’19 without any indication that it made much of a difference in limiting his success.

The Chargers’ and Packers’ Cover 3-Seam shells proved to be the only defensive scheme worthy of circling in red toward limiting his production. However, with Derwin James out for much or all of the 2020 season, those matchup hurdles against the Chargers may have overcome themselves. No other coverage shell offered consistent resistance for Hill.

Defenses to exploit this season: I am of the opinion that health permitting, Hill is matchup-proof. We do have evidence of Hill struggling against the Chargers’ defense, so avoiding their Week 2 and Week 17 matchups might be a viable strategy. However, I do not believe the Chargers will come anywhere close to replacing the excellence of James.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

At first glance, the inclination that reviewing JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2018 game tape, considering Ben Roethlisberger missed most of the 2019 season, would be a better representation to forecast future success. However, his 2019 footage ended up providing more than enough evidence for DFS predictive purposes. JuJu simply loves to face man coverage. He offers enough shake off the line of scrimmage to gain that needed step on man defenders to find success on verticals to the outside, and deep crossers over the middle of the defense.

The coverage that has played right into JuJu’s strengths over his career being Cover 1 shells. With only a single high safety responsible for providing help over the top, Smith-Schuster can gain enough separation on sideline go’s for success. But his ability to flourish on crossers behind the MIKE linebacker covering the “hole” underneath the free safety is what has truly set him apart over his three NFL seasons. Barring the Steelers’ brass throwing Devlin Hodges, one of the least effective QBs in recent memory, back onto the field, Smith-Schuster is set up for a complete return to his ’18 success with over half of his 2020 matchups coming against teams deploying a large volume of Cover 1 shells.

Defenses to exploit this season: Giants (W1), Texans (W3), Eagles (W5), Ravens (W7 & W12), Bengals (W10), Washington (W13), Bills (W14), and Bengals (W15)

Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Much like Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp relies on his wiggle to gain separation against man coverage without the elite top-end speed. But that 4.6 speed is simply far from ideal when facing NFL zone coverages. Kupp’s production took quite a dip following the Week 9 bye last season with only one game exceeding 70 yards the rest of the way. If not for a five-game touchdown streak from Weeks 13-17, popular opinion on his outlook might be quite a bit different.

From a coverage perspective, an answer can be attributed, at least partially. Kupp only faced a committed Cover 1 defense in two games during his statistical decline, both of those coming against the Cardinals, with Kupp only responding with success in their Week 17 matchup (7/99/1). He did face the Ravens, who also employ Cover 1 but — due to their disgusting excess of excellent corners — Baltimore also utilizes a Cover 0 that does not have the benefit of high safety assistance. However, with Robert Woods and Tyler Higbee exploding during the second half of last season, Kupp simply didn’t receive the same looks over that tough stretch. His future outlook shouldn’t be of great concern, especially with Brandin Cooks now in Houston.

Defenses to exploit this season: Cowboys (W2), Bills (W3), Giants (W4), Washington (W5), Dolphins (W8), Buccaneers (W11), Cardinals (W13 & W17)

Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

It would be easy to typecast Tyler Lockett as a very streaky receiver who will struggle to produce against soft defenses and explode for gaudy numbers the next game versus one of the best. That line of thinking would be unfair to “Baby Lockett”’s abilities. A player with 4.4 speed is nothing to laugh about. Also consider that Lockett was very efficient with the looks he was provided (75.9 catch percentage). The underlying issue with Lockett is the offense, in general. Seattle is a run-first team, first-and-foremost. Shouts for the release of Russell Wilson’s passing capabilities seem to have become the annual norm for the Seahawks’ brass.

Lockett has the kind of speed and elusiveness to punish both zone defenses and in one-on-one matchups. With DK Metcalf on the outside with speed to spare of his own, we should have a formula for success. However, it appears Seattle is perfectly fine only tapping into Lockett’s skills when they either fall behind or need to keep pace with high-scoring attacks. This all creates the task of forecasting his general fantasy, DFS usefulness extremely difficult. Make no mistake that, if Wilson is ever permitted to consistently push his passes down the field, Lockett could easily produce Tyreek Hill-like numbers. For now, it’s all pure speculation.

Defenses to exploit this season: Falcons (W1), Giants (W13), and Washington (W15)

Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns

Similar to Tyreek Hill, Jarvis Landry utilizes a full arsenal of routes, speaking to the results that have defined his career. The issue fantasy players have with “Juice” is that he’s been extremely reliant on PPR numbers due to annually averaging a hair over five TDs during his six-year career. In addition, Landry’s catch percentage has seen a near 10% decline with Cleveland than he produced while with Miami. That’s not to say that Landry will be unable to turn that trend on its head. Only time will tell.

Landry seems to find more success to the right side of the field, plus balls out on deep posts and crossers over the middle of the field. The one aspect of his game that is entirely unmistakable is his ability to punish Cover 1 (man) shells. In four of five games culminating with a productive line (at least 15 PPR points), Landry was facing a significant amount of Cover 1 looks. That said, he was unable to capitalize on that success in both of his matchups against Baltimore and Cincinnati, for whatever reason. Buyer beware with multiple matchups against both teams on the 2020 schedule. On the bright side, he’ll face a higher percentage of man coverages this season.

Defenses to exploit this season: Ravens (W1 & W14), Bengals (W2 & W7), Washington (W3), Raiders (W8), Texans (W10), Eagles (W11), and Giants (W15)

Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati Bengals

Much like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyler Boyd suffered from poor QB play in 2019. Similar to Tyler Lockett, Boyd effectively attacks every level independent of field depth. One of my biggest takeaways from watching his film from last season is how much he crushed defenses when targeted over the middle of the field. Any receiver who can put a 10/122/0 line on the 49ers’ Cover 3 with the modern-day Andy Dalton under center is someone to circle in red.

In the great majority of Boyd’s most productive games last season, he took advantage of poor linebacker play within zone coverage. You’d be hard-pressed to find ample evidence during Joe Burrow’s time at LSU of a single coverage shell that put a stop to him moving the pigskin down the field. While that is certainly a positive spin on Boyd’s 2020 outlook, it also makes the task of pinpointing the exact matchups for an explosion quite difficult. A focus on identifying coverage liabilities at linebacker would, in my opinion, supersede targeting particular coverage shells until we have NFL tape to digest of Burrow in action.

Defenses to exploit this season: Chargers (W1), Browns (W2), Eagles (W3), Jaguars (W4), Browns (W7), Titans (W8), Washington (W11), Giants (W12), and Dolphins (W13)

Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

We’ve already looked at two slot receivers (Smith-Schuster and Boyd) who should see a bump in quality at QB over last season. The Chargers will be making the transition from shoo-in Hall of Famer Philip Rivers to the read option skillset of Tyrod Taylor. To say that the difference will be a slight downgrade for Keenan Allen is far from a shot at Taylor. Taylor will most likely prove to be an upgrade for the vertical effectiveness, jump ball ability of Mike Williams. Attacking vertically is an aspect of Rivers’ game that has begun to decline in recent seasons. Allen simply doesn’t utilize routes that attack the deep portions of the field.

Allen prefers to do his work on short crossers, hitches, and in- & out-breaking routes. These are the type of routes that give Cover 4 and Cover 6 zone shells absolute fits. They can also be more than a handful for man coverages against receivers possessing elite footwork in-and-out of their routes, qualities that essentially define Allen’s career. With all of that in mind, it should come as zero surprise that Allen played some of his best ‘19 ball against Houston, Kansas City (2x), Denver, and Minnesota. I’ve considered Allen to be one the easier slot receivers in predicting DFS success. It’s far too early to determine how a new offensive coordinator, the installation of an offense with Taylor lining up behind center, and how the inclusion of the pistol formation will affect Allen’s game. However, I am listing target games for Allen assuming he will be able to overcome these challenges with similar results.

Defenses to exploit this season: Chiefs (W2 & W17), Panthers (W3), Raiders (W9 & W16), and Broncos (W11 & W16)

Jamison Crowder, New York Jets

As the young Sam Darnold continues to develop, so does the fantasy value of Jamison Crowder. The Washington Football Team no doubt rues the day it permitted Crowder to walk as a free agent to sign a highly economical deal with New York. Crowder has provided his new team with a stable, veteran presence that is happy to vacuum up all of the targets Darnold sends his way. Consider that one-third of all games in which Crowder failed to produce at least 15 PPR points last season fell from Weeks 2-5 with Luke Falk or Trevor Siemian leading the offense while Darnold was on the shelf. Crowder is simply being criminally overlooked in redrafts.

Somewhat similar to Keenan Allen, Crowder relies on his footwork, plus route-running skills to take advantage of man defenses and Cover 4 zones on obvious passing downs from sideline-to-sideline at intermediate depth. However, he’s yet to come close to Allen in regard to possessing a well-rounded route tree. From my film review, Crowder entirely ate his meals on hitches and outs when facing Cover 1 and intermediate crossers against Cover 4. Crowder facing off with the Bills should be considered one of the tastiest matchups on the 2020 schedule.

Defenses to exploit this season: Bills (W1 & W7), Cardinals (W5), Dolphins (W10 & W12)

Julian Edelman, New England Patriots

It would be extremely unwise to write off Julian Edelman simply due to the loss of Tom Brady. As has already been pointed out by the Fantasy Points’ staff, the Patriots’ offense produced two 1,000-yard receivers in 2008 without Brady. My first impression upon studying Edelman was the sheer abuse he afflicted upon man defenders. That much is entirely crystal clear. Teams that run out Cover 1 or Cover 0 shells expecting to contain Edelman ended greatly disappointed. But, upon further evaluation, Edelman even succeeded against zone coverages, particularly Cover 3.

If you see Edelman going up against a defense confidently employing a Cover 0, get the man into your DFS lineups. This is a coverage shell that is not for the faint of heart that deploys a secondary without the benefit of high safety support. Edelman punishing that defense should come as no surprise with the knowledge that the Patriots love to play Cover 0. However, as mentioned, Edelman is perfectly able to exploit zone coverage at this point in his career. “Minitron” is no less than a coach on the field, deciphering defensive weaknesses on the fly. Not to mention that he is, in my opinion, one of the top five receivers in all of football on intermediate crossing routes.

Defenses to exploit this season: Dolphins (W1 & W15), Seahawks (W2), Chiefs (W4), Ravens (W10), Cardinals (W12), and Rams (W14)

With a dedicated focus on studying game film and a faithful commitment to metrics & analytics, Huber’s specialties include DFS (college and NFL), Devy & Dynasty formats, and second-to-none fantasy analysis of high school prospects.

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